Words almost never come first to author-illustrator LeUyen Pham, but as she walked her Los Angeles neighborhood with her husband and kids during the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, the Caldecott Honoree started envisioning the text for a story. Five months later, the result is Outside, Inside, a picture book inspired by the swirling mixture of grief and peace that Pham experienced during the initial months of the outbreak, but with a message intended to last for years beyond the pandemic.
“It is a story about the innate kindness of individuals and the promise that it can signal for the future,” Pham told PW. It is also a story that came about because of a close, trusting partnership between Pham and Connie Hsu, executive editor at Roaring Brook Press. That partnership is rooted in a friendship that began long before this book. Hsu was starting out as an editor when she met Pham, who illustrated Jabari Asim’s Boy of Mine and Girl of Mine. Since then, they have collaborated on other projects. So when people began to quarantine and Pham started taking notes on her daily walks, the ideas she was putting on paper brought her back to Hsu.
“I would jot down things I saw,” Pham said. “I was developing two lists; things that were going on inside and things that were going on outside. At some point I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a story in this. What would the message be?’ ”
She told her agent that she thought the idea could become a book, but that it would only succeed if she could work with Hsu. When they connected, Pham asked if Hsu thought the premise of writing about what people were experiencing publicly and privately during the outbreak could lead to a book with a lasting message. “It sounds like it could really be something,” Hsu replied, but she added a note of caution. “It has to be just right.”
“I had seen a handful of projects about the coronavirus, but none of them captured the whole experience because they talked about being inside, and that’s only part of it,” Hsu said. “The experience wasn’t the same for everyone. Being able to have this moment to be with your family to connect is a privilege. A lot of the projects I had seen didn’t show that, and the stories weren’t being told in a way that’s accessible and truthful and hopeful.”
Hsu told Pham that if anyone could do it, it was her. But from that moment on, the project also became a collaboration between the two, with a back-and-forth dialogue that encouraged Pham to persevere when working on the book was emotionally challenging.
Pham scoured articles and reports for real-life stories of the experiences of hundreds of others, not only reflecting them in the text but also drawing them in the illustrations. There are the nurses bringing an 88-year-old woman her last birthday cake, a husband with a sign at the window of a hospital thanking workers for saving his wife, and the mother of Pham’s friend who died from the virus. Those who died are hued in blue at the end of the book, but the story is as much about the living, representing the world many have started to create out of a sense of kindness toward one another.
Scenes depict the way that nature began to return when people stopped driving so much, the way families came together inside their homes, and how they joined with neighbors to do good outside in their communities. In small groupings of text, the words form a poetic landscape that can be read multi-directionally across the page spreads. Guiding the reader through the story is a cat, navigating all of the spaces that people have traveled, and leading readers into renewal in the form of a spring season that represents an emergence into kindness that was first cultivated during the outbreak.
Through it all, Pham has kept Hsu’s words in mind, committing herself to creating a book that, while written in a moment of upheaval, can stand the test of time. “It has to last both this period and past this moment,” Pham said. “It has to capture something that keeps or stays and warrants being published 10 years from now. What needed to come across is that sense that we are fairly powerful in what we can accomplish and achieve through goodness.”
Since Pham wants the entire project to reflect the good that she has seen around her, she is establishing a fund to support food banks and is donating a portion of her advance to support it.
For Hsu, the book meets the high standard she set for it. Looking back, she said it is hard to believe that the entire process of creating the book occurred in a matter of weeks. With such a fast turnaround, the book is slated to hit shelves on January 5, 2021, just as a new year begins.
And while the process of creating the book was emotionally difficult, Pham said, “This is one of the first times I did a book where everything fell into place so easily.” She credits Hsu for helping make that possible by embracing the inside/outside message at the center of the story. “It took me into a space where it felt like everyone was working together,” Pham said. “It immediately felt like, we’re both going to attempt to realize something for a whole group of people.”